Thursday, August 12, 2010

People's Assembly on Climate justice: Toronto's Challenge to Build the Movement

The burning questions to be considered moving forward:

Are the working groups an effective and practical way of operating?

Should the next gathering be just one more, one-time event, another conference, or should it be a People's Assembly, a permanent open space for ongoing collective dialogue, and a tool for movement building?

The People's Assembly needs to be a regularly scheduled, routinely-occurring gathering, to be held every two months, or preferably monthly.

Should we try to provide themes and content, or create goals and actions, or leave that task to the Assembly?

Before I get into thoughts and ideas from today, here are some notes I wrote down during our last organizing meeting:

"Invite all the endorsing groups and organizations -- endorsers of all the Cochabamba Report-Back events, and all the endorsers from the June 23rd Assembly -- looking to build a very large, broad-based People's Assembly. This is the beginning of a giant exercise in Movement Building for Climate Justice and beyond in Toronto. Its going to be a people's horizontal process fueled by popular power, and a lot of its success is going to be based on numbers. As such we are inviting all social and climate justice groups and organizations in the city who want to become a part of this process, and we urge them to send not only one or two representatives or delegates just to have presence at the Assembly, but to include their entire organization, all their members to swell our ranks."

"If we can accomplish that, then the assemblies will become a huge exercise in reciprocal capacity building. Imagine what all these affinity groups and organizations can do with these large numbers of participants at their disposal, and imagine how valuable for all these people to have all these resources, knowledge, capacity, and experience available to them. The People's Assembly can join these two forces together and give birth to something very effective and very significant in Toronto."

What is the difference between a conference and an Assembly? There are similarities between the two, but one important distinction to make is that a conference is a one-time temporary affair, an event. An Assembly is a permanent body or space for continuing and ongoing dialogue. This is what we need if we stand a chance to build an effective movement.

When the Cochabamba conference was announced last year, Evo Morales didn't say we are organizing this international people's conference for people to go back home and set off a long series of speaking events and conferences. He said we are hosting this conference to initiate the process of beginning to build a worldwide Climate Justice Movement. If we have just one more conference with working groups and then we let this go away, then we might as well forget about everything we learned and all the lessons we brought back from Cochabamba, because thats not what Cochabamba set out to do.

The only way the People's Assembly is worth organizing, and the only way it can be useful in building a movement, is if it exists on a permanent basis. If we don't decide on establishing the Assembly on a monthly basis, or to hold it every two months, then we will yield nothing new, no growth, no building, no continuation, and even if we organize another mass event similar to June 23rd, with working groups or without, it will not be an assembly, it will be just an event, just another conference.


Working Groups?

Would working groups, for our purpose, be an effective and practical way of operating? Since we have already agreed on putting together an invitation letter to send out to affinity groups and organizations, then it seems we agree that this should be the driving feature of the Assembly. Here is something I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

"Take for example the working groups that were formed during the first Assembly; Tar Sands Resistance, Indigenous Rights, and cap and trade to name just a few. It doesn't make sense in terms of efficiency and effectiveness to start these newly formed groups with individuals who may or may not know a lot about the issues pertaining to their working groups, and who are starting from nothing, from scratch, and to charge them with the great task of building up solidarity around the issue in the city of Toronto. There are already dozens of groups and organizations in the city, experts and veterans who have been working and campaigning around specific issues for months and years. It would be more effective to communicate with all these groups, and to have them come be an integral part of the Assembly process, thereby providing all Assembly participants with already-existing resources, knowledge, capacity, and experience, and to allow them to choose where they would best fit in, for them to identify which patch on the community solidarity quilt is best suited for their interests and abilities. Working groups might end up being the appropriate format for the Toronto People's Assembly, only time will tell, but if so, I think those experienced affinity groups and organizations should be incorporated into them not as the lead, but in the middle actively working with the people in a nexus support role. The Assembly needs to be a horizontal space to facilitate the consolidating and organizing of solidarity. It will also be a place for exchange and education."

Working groups rather, could be used as a convertible feature of the assembly for larger campaigns or initiatives that require specific organizing and more time and energy invested, such as the popular consultation for example. The working group could be like an attachment on a Swiss Army knife, or like a subcommittee to be convened whenever needed. Working groups, or break-out sessions are better suited to conferences, not to a People's Assembly.


Should we be suggesting goals or actions for the Assembly? The Assembly for sure will be a vehicle through which we can plan single, united, large, impactful actions, and to be sure, if we put hundreds of motivated, energetic, creative people in one room and ask them to share ideas, thoughts, and tactics for the movement, you will have a mass of people lining up to speak. People want to share their vision, and contribute to and witness its collective embodiment. We as organizers don't come with specific themes or ideas, these actions and campaigns will be suggested and planned by the Assembly, not by us the organizers. Our job is to focus as little as possible on specifics and content, that will be created by the assembly itself. Our task is to create the most functional format, the structure, and the space for the assembly to fill, but the creative content, the ideas, and the inspiration will come from the people, not from the organizers.

In terms of bringing the content forward from the june 23rd Assembly. Unfortunately the working groups did not band, did not follow through on email lists to continue developing their working group themes. The content we gathered is simply a sheet with thirty or so few-word statements and ideas randomly thrown together. The content and the ideas were not organized or categorized. And, since it is looking likely now that the assembly format will not be working group-centric, the content and ideas will recreate themselves around whichever new format we agree on.

We don't have to make the assemblies theme-centric, to center one assembly around the municipal elections for example. Of course we will talk about these things, but the Assembly together will make those decisions. The theme IS the People's Assembly; the theme is the creative process that will manifest itself through the People's Assembly. Our task is simply to create the capacity to facilitate this process. A city-wide permanent collective space for groups, organizations, and individuals, tailored as an effective tool to manifest creative energies. Essentially we want to create a skeletal mechanism, and hand it to the community. They will provide the flesh and the substance. The People's Assembly is like a massive blank canvas for everyone to paint on together, or like a potluck of ideas. It is like a beehive where everyone goes outside and collects pollen from hundreds of different flowers, and then they all come together to create honey.

At the moment we have dozens and dozens of Affinity groups and organizations who do different types of work around climate justice, doing different types of campaigns, but for the most part they all work individually. They organize their own events, and focus on their own efforts, and as a result of this our energies are scattered, and to a degree being wasted. An organization will hold an event, and then another group will hold a conference, and so on and so forth, and those events might be good and educational, but after they're over, they're over, and nothing much really happens, precisely because our energies are overly spread out. What we want to do with the assembly is to create a large network of efficiency, and organization, and collaboration to make sure that our efforts are not squandered.We have to pool all of our talents, abilities, specialties, resources, strengths and weaknesses, and make them work for us together as one united movement, not as separate units. We have to move from scattered and secluded separately operating groups, to movement building. The goal is to be united, and to achieve increased and improved communication and coordination between all are various groups. Its not that we don't understand the concept of solidarity, and unity, and collaboration, its just that our generation in this country has yet to do it effectively. That is our challenge.

The two words that have to be central to everything we do moving forward with developing the People's assembly from now are; Movement Building. I have been to a few meetings in the last couple weeks with different groups, and some are talking about potentially merging with other groups, some are talking about networking, but essentially these are all just different words expressing the same desire; a need for organized solidarity, and improved communication and coordination. Rainforest Action Network Toronto is talking about Movement Building, the Latin America Solidarity Network is talking about Movement Building, OCAP is talking about Movement Building, No One Is Illegal is talking about Movement Building, the people are talking about Movement Building. Events, conferences, and periodic rallies on their own will no longer do; they maintain only the status-quo, and the status-quo is not good enough because our opponents at this time hold the upper hand. We have to move beyond the status-quo by creating an entity with a character of synthesis and empowerment.

We have an immense and imperative duty and responsibility to respond to the next level of the system of injustice, oppression, and inequality. The next level of neoliberalism, the next level of austerity measures, cuts to social spending and the economic and social attack on the poor, the migrants, the indigenous, the women, the workers, the students, and the disadvantaged of this world. While the concentrations of wealth, and the supremacy and domination of the elites is getting greater, our possibilities to harmonize with Mother Earth, our access to water, food, employment, and education, our ability to create a healthy and sustainable world, our freedom, and our living spaces are getting smaller. Reflecting on a past experience, and analyzing the conditions which marginalized communities are increasingly subjected to, a local Toronto activist commented that "what is really beginning to crystallize is that prison is like a concentration of our everyday realities." That same brother also identified that the extraordinary conditions which we are exposed to in today's world are catalyzing a generation, and spurring the necessity of a people's movement beyond anything we have seen before in this country. In response to these forces in movement, the permanence of a People's Assembly in Toronto must be fundamental.

"The Future belongs to those who prepare for it today."

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